WASHINGTON, Jan. 22, 2016 — The average person lies almost 2.92 times in every 10 minutes of conversation. Sixty percent of people can’t go 10 minutes without lying. On average, we’re lied to 200 times every day.
So say University of Massachusetts researchers. According to a study in Human Communication Research, people report lying an average of only 1.65 times per day, but those people are almost certainly lying about how often they lie.
We lie for a variety of reasons. We lie to be kind or to spare the feelings of others. “Oh, thank you, I couldn’t take another bite, but it was delicious!” “No, of course that dress doesn’t make you look fat, but I don’t think the color suits you.” We lie to ease awkward situations, with all parties knowing that we lie but politely ignoring it. “Your speech was just fine. I think people were just a little tired.”
We lie to avoid punishment or blame. “The dog ate my homework.” We lie to put ourselves in a better light. “I only turn on the TV to watch the news and Masterpiece Theater.” We lie because we feel guilty, embarrassed, inept and insecure. We lie to manipulate. “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning.” We lie for gain and out of malice.
Children start lying—learning to be deceptive—as young as six months. Children often lie when they’d be better served by the truth. This is a positive step in their moral development; they’ve learned to recognize when they’ve done something wrong, and they lie to avoid the consequences, not understanding yet that the consequences are often less serious when they tell the truth. This is nothing to worry about unless it persists into the teen years and beyond.
Hillary Clinton is 68.
Clinton has a charmingly child-like propensity for dishonesty. Consider her email problem. On the one hand, it’s good that she knows keeping classified material on her home email server was wrong. “There was nothing on there but wedding plans and my yoga schedule.” Caught in the lie, though, she upped the ante. “Nothing on there was classified when I received it in my email.” Caught again, she lied again. “The line between sensitive and not-sensitive isn’t always clear.”
By the time Intelligence Community Inspector General I. Charles McCullough found that some of her mail contained material that was clearly top secret, her imagined world was too complex to abandon. “He’s just part of the vast, right-wing conspiracy.”
Hillary could have defused the lie early on, taken some lumps and soldiered on. “I messed up on that one. I had reasons that seemed good at the time, but it was a lapse in my otherwise excellent record for good judgment.” We needn’t get snarky about the truthfulness of that response, but it would have avoided a more problematic lie.
There is always the possibility that Hillary isn’t lying—that she wasn’t deliberately deceptive—but that she did not in fact believe that any of the information on her server was classified. If that’s the case, she showed deplorable judgment. It’s hard to say which is worse in a president: inability to opt first for the truth, or inability to distinguish the relative sensitivity of recipes and materials labeled “TOP SECRET.”
Hillary isn’t the only presidential candidate who lies. The dishonesty of politicians is almost a cliché; even prostitutes are in better repute. Donald Trump seems to say whatever pops into his head with no regard for its connection to reality. Ted Cruz is a chameleon, a deceptive creature by its very nature. It is churlish of her critics to call Mrs. Clinton a “liar” as if that were something new and shocking in the political world.
Still, politicians lie for various reasons, like the rest of us. Most often it is to conceal an uncomfortable political record, to dress up inconsistency as an expression of deep and abiding principles, to promise what they know they can’t deliver or to misrepresent their opponents and make them into monsters of depravity. These are normal political lies, the lies that shock us as much as learning that there’s dirty dancing going on at a “gentleman’s club.”
Hillary seems different. She lies for the same reasons other politicians lie, but she also lies almost reflexively. Until I finish a medical degree, I won’t presume to explain what goes on in her head, but many of her lies seem almost pointless. No one lies more than the person who can’t admit error. We all make mistakes, but if we can’t admit it, we’re forced constantly to reinvent reality and the past. We end up lying, like Hillary, when there’s no real point and nothing much to be gained by it.
Experts say that the average person can detect a lie only 54 percent of the time. The police and FBI agents are no better at it than the rest of us. We’re also more likely to ignore lies from people we love, since to recognize the lie would force us to question the wisdom of our affection. It would force us to look into ourselves and question our own judgment, something we hate to do. We’d rather lie to ourselves.
So why do Hillary’s supporters not notice her lies? Why do they help her support and perpetuate them? Again, I’m not a psychiatrist, and the reasons are probably diverse. But once you’ve invested your emotions and staked your judgment on someone, you won’t easily see or hear that person’s lies. That’s as true of lying politicians as lying boyfriends and cheating spouses. Until our noses are rubbed into it, we ignore, we disregard.
Whose lies are worse: Hillary’s, Trump’s, Cruz’s or Obama’s? Our answer to that gives insight into our own thinking and values without revealing anything about the politicians. As a conservative, I’m more likely to condemn Hillary, Trump and President Obama and to see President Reagan as a saint. I liked Reagan, a lot. And I’m pretty sure that he didn’t always tell the truth.
Our affections and dislikes preclude consistency in our attitudes to political lies. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only human.